Claim: When John Hancock affixed his famously large signature to the Declaration of Independence, he proclaimed, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”
Example: [Collected via the Internet, June 2013]
On signing the Declaration of Independence John Hancock commented, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!” I always loved that story. I can picture John in his defiance, filled with indignation for King George making that statement. Today we would say, “Take that you big bully!”
Actually after he signed the Declaration he exclaimed, “There! John Bull can read my name without spectacles and may now double his reward of £500 for my head. That is my defiance.” I can picture him saying that in great indignation. Today we might say, “Take that, Johnny Boy. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
What he really said was, “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.”
Origins: In the introduction to his 2000 biography of John Hancock, historian Harlow Giles Unger noted that:
Although John Hancock’s bold signature on the Declaration of Independence is a national
It is indeed one of the quirks of history that John
Perhaps because we know so little about Hancock the man, we’ve invented legends about him to explain how his name came to be front and center on the Declaration of Independence, the largest and clearest signature on the document, smack in the middle of the top row. It was an act of defiance, we’ve
stroke by a bold man who challenged the British to come and get him, and who by so doing instilled confidence and courage in the colonial delegates who followed his lead and affixed their names to the Declaration as well, even though they risked being hanged for treason by doing so.
John Hancock was an extremely rich man who risked much of his fortune on the success of the revolution, who had a price on his head, and who practically guaranteed by signing the Declaration that he would be hanged by the British if caught, but none of those factors explains his prominent signature on the Declaration. The tales about the defiant exclamations he supposedly uttered while signing that document are based on a couple of common historical misconceptions: that the purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to serve formal notice upon
The Declaration of Independence was not addressed to King George, nor was a copy delivered to him by colonial representatives (although there was little doubt that he would eventually see it). The purpose of the Declaration was for the Continental Congress to explain to the American colonists whom they represented why they felt it necessary to break with Great Britain, and to justify their actions to the rest of the world. The Declaration blames “the present King of Great Britain” for “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” but it isn’t addressed to
primary reason it referenced him was because Congressional delegates felt Parliament was an unrepresentative body with no legal authority to pass laws governing them, and that making Parliament the target of their grievances in the Declaration would be tantamount to recognizing that body’s authority to rule the colonies.
Moreover, despite the impression created by John Trumbull’s famous painting of the event, the delegates to the Continental Congress did not sign the familiar parchment document now on exhibit in the
The “official” signed version of the Declaration, known as the engrossed or parchment copy, wasn’t produced until well after
those legendary phrases didn’t appear in histories and biographies until well after the fact.
Congress kept the identities of the signatories secret for several months to protect them from being charged with treason, so John Hancock and others did run a great risk for affixing their names to that document. However, Hancock typically signed his name in the fancy, large script so familiar to us, and the reason his name appears in the middle of the top row of the Declaration is because he was president of the Continental Congress at the time the document was approved and adopted. But he was much more than a man with a fancy signature, and his legend is a fascinating and admirable story without the need for embellishment.
Last updated: 3 July 2014
Bobrick, Benson. Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. ISBN 0-684-81060-3. Shenkman, Richard. Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. ISBN 0-06-097261-0 (pp. 137-139). Unger, Harlow Giles. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. ISBN 0-471-33209-7.